Since 1996, Japan Nite has been bringing Japanese music to the SXSW Music Festival in Austin and dotting various cities in the US with alternative and indies Japanese bands. Some bands experience such surprising success, like ELLEGARDEN, that they come back to do solo lives. Nearly a dozen bands were on the roster for 2009, although not all bands played at all stops. The live in Denver nearly didn’t happen due to the insane surprise blizzard (I guess the snow wanted to go to Japan Nite too), so many fans were forced to stay home for their own safety. Luckily, no other spots faced weather hardships, and most concerts went on relatively on time.

Japan Night at the Los Angeles Knitting Factory was packed in a sea of rockers, punkers, and normal-lookin’ folk, but the lolita tribes that flock to these events were mostly absent. The age range was a bit higher than the teenage demographic.

If you’re jaded with visual-kei, Japan Nite is where you go to get a change of pace. The merch table in the back was packed; Sparta Locals T-shirts sold out before the first band even went on, and CDs were a steal at $10. Stickers flew for free. Merchandise here is always cheap, and there’s no excuse to go home without anything. All the money goes directly to the band, so you can feel good about purchasing supporting music the second the dollar bills switch hands.

FLIP came on first, an all-girl band from Nara, Japan. Marking their indies new-wave songs with rough patches of screaming like Chiba Yusuke does, there is a female ferocity you won’t find in any saccharine girl-sung anime songs these days. You’d suspect that these under-twenties with-cute haircuts would be students or secretaries, but no, these girls brag true raw feeling from their instruments and they’re not afraid to be loud opening for a concert line-up that’s mostly men. Apparently, they do this on purpose. There is a severe lack of girl-power in the rock music scene overseas. Japan Nite has always been excellent on keeping a co-ed roster; FLIP got lucky with coming over with such a great tour.

Omodaka, a (male) masked dancer in white preist’s outfit with a Beatle’s wig, played synth music that sounded rather like high-speed Mario music, and other times, a theramin on an acid trip. This is called “chiptune” — backhacking video games to use their sound chips as instruments. One of Japan Nite’s street team said to me, “I love it, [but] also am slightly puzzled by it”. In another instance, Omodaka would hold the mike up to a laptop screen with a geisha’s face on it (the laptop was on a chair, with a deflated blow-up skeleton body hanging up off of it) as if the face was singing high-pitch modernized enka. Rather not expected, rather interesting. He then held a white DS and a PSP and “played” with it as the game music blasted. A pair of concert-goers nearby debated about the game music’s origins but yet to figure it out. Did you know?

Punk band SA (pronounced “ESS AY”) was third, assaulting listeners with bilingual lyrics. They heydey of British-inspired punk and Japcore in Japan has been severely eclipsed by rock and boy bands, but the leather and spiked-hair spirit still lives on in its own stubborn niche. SA stands for “Samurai Attack” according to their shirts. They’re interactive punk; they involve the audience. The vocalist TAISEI had a pompadour like the early days of The Mods. NAOKI, the guitarist, made weird faces at the audience; punk bands are so full of personality they’re a blast to watch on stage. A mohawked kid stage-dove. The audience was told to chant, “SA! SA!” between cries of “OI OI OI!” and let’s “Let’s rock LA!” White lads (and Asian girls!) in suburban-soccer-mom-terrifying punk regalia appeared out of nowhere and moshed as if this was the last chance to see a Japanese punk band ever play in the US. Since Japan Nite brought over Stance Punks in 2006, it seemed a miracle to get blessed twice.

detroit7 have been making waves in the underground indies scene since 2001. If you’re into Nirvana, you may recognize detroit7 as they covered “Rape Me” on the Japanese tribute album, “All Apologies”. You’d think that was a male vocalist, but no, that was husky-voiced Tomomi Nabana. Only their bassist, Nobuaki Kotajima, is male (the drummer, Miyoko Yamaguchi, is female too). They’re an incredibly enjoyable band, with great drum lines and a pumping bass line that makes it impossible to sit still (lots of hands in the air!). detroit7 has released domestically, and considering the depressing coverage of the city of Detroit these days, it’s nice that something with that name on is so gosh-darn peppy. The March 29th Japan Nite stop is their last United States stop; after this, detroit7 will be heading on a European tour to spots like France and Hungary. Go see ’em!

Last up is Sparta Locals. They haven’t done any anime songs, and they’re not visual kei, so to see that so many people somehow found and love Sparta Locals is a bit boggling. I thought I was their only supporter for months, but I was thankfully quite wrong. Their eclectic sound and indies twang are present tonight in full force. Looking at Sparta Locals, you’d think they were nerdy computer repairmen with huge collections of Gundam figurines. You’d be wrong. Once the magical lightswitch is turned on inside them, Sparta Locals are a spastically rockin’ band complete with head-banging, mic-screaming, and a heavy dose of audience interaction. They opened with “Tokyo Ballerina”, and nearly everyone was singing along. Being the last band of the night, fans finally got to beg for an encore – and received one. The guitarist shattered his instrument. Despite the gasp this invoked from the audience, various fans were later spotted hauling the pieces off in glee.

Japan Nite will surely be back next year, so if you missed ’em this time around, keep an eye out for the spring announcement. Get your indies groove on year round by downloading the free sampler at Hear Japan, and by keeping up with Japan’s alternative scene. Make sure you support the artists who have domestic releases to ensure they come back! See you next year.

Live report by: Hikari